Juan Soto’s struggles continue — and so do the Nationals’

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MILWAUKEE — No team-wide slump comes down to one player. There are nine in every lineup. There are a few more on the bench. In any season, there will be times when the zeros pile up, one after another, and every hard-struck ball seems to get swallowed by a glove.

That’s normal and expected. But what’s jarring for the Washington Nationals — the club that dropped another game Saturday, 5-1, to the Milwaukee Brewers — is how Juan Soto isn’t hiding their offensive issues or even shading them a bit. At the moment, the 23-year-old star is right in the thick of them.

Soto finished 0 for 3 with a walk in this defeat, tapping into a double play. His batting average dipped to .245. His on-base-plus-slugging percentage, .850, reflects that he still leads the major leagues with 33 walks. He has eight homers, the last one coming at the end of a loss to the New York Mets on May 12. He looks frustrated and not himself.

“I’ve been feeling kind of weird,” Soto said. “I’ve been working a lot on my swing, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s pretty tough to get back to where it was. I’ve been watching my videos and all that stuff. But it is what it is. Right now, I’ve been just up and down.”

Box score: Brewers 5, Nationals 1

As a team, the Nationals (13-28) have scored two or fewer runs in eight of their past 11 contests. They are 3-8 in that stretch, pushing them deeper into last place in the National League East. And since Washington began this seven-game road trip, which could end with a sweep at American Family Field on Sunday, Soto is 2 for 16 with a double and five walks. Brandon Woodruff was the latest starter to hold him in check, helped by third baseman Mike Brosseau leaping for a 95-mph liner off Soto’s bat in the sixth.

Based on the rest of Soto’s four-year career, this will pass soon. Advanced metrics predict a return to top-of-the-line production. Soto has admitted that his timing is a bit off, that he’s chasing more pitches than usual, that he has missed chances to punish mistakes in the middle of the zone. On Saturday, for example, Soto got a dead-center fastball from Woodruff and grounded out up the middle. When he hit a dribbler back to Woodruff for a rally-killing double play, it was on a change-up off the plate outside.

Those are pitches Soto typically crushes or takes. So it’s confounding that, well into May, he so often has been in between the extremes.

“We got to get him to stay in the middle field and not chase,” Manager Dave Martinez said, talking about the player who had the majors’ lowest chase rate by a wide margin in 2021. “Be a little bit more aggressive in the strike zone but also not get away from who he is. And that’s taking his walks and staying in the middle of the field.

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How did starter Patrick Corbin pitch? He started poorly, found his rhythm for a spell, then wilted in the fifth. That resulted in a line of five frames, eight hits, five earned runs, a walk and three strikeouts on 79 pitches. Andrew McCutchen started the night by crushing Corbin’s first pitch, a middle-out sinker, for a solo homer. The next three batters collected two singles and a sacrifice fly to bump the Brewers (26-14) ahead by two runs.

From there, Corbin retired 13 of the 15 batters he faced between the first and fifth. Groundballs were his friend with Keibert Ruiz behind the plate. But after he quickly got two outs in the fifth, Luis Urías stalked a first-pitch fastball and drove it over the wall in right-center. The next two batters, Christian Yelich and Hunter Renfroe, poked singles, with Renfroe rolling his against the shift and through a wide-open right side. Then Keston Hiura broke the score open with a two-run single to left, pulling a first-pinch sinker.

“They tried to get him. You saw that right from the first batter,” Martinez said of the Brewers hunting early-count fastballs. “A lot of first-pitch, a lot of first-pitch hits. I watched him, and he made the pitches he needed. The only was the one to [Huira]. … I know he’s trying to [stay] down there, and the ball was up a little bit. I told him I really believe he’s throwing the ball way better.”

Didn’t Riley Adams catch each of Corbin’s past four starts? Yes, and five of the previous six before Saturday. But with the offense struggling, Martinez went with Ruiz, who entered with the most hits (31) and second-highest OPS (.726) among catchers with at least 120 plate appearances. Plus, Adams played Friday night against the left-handed Eric Lauer, making it so pairing him with Corbin again would have meant sitting Ruiz two games in a row.

Don’t expect that to happen much this season, if at all. Facing righty Woodruff, Ruiz struck out looking in the second — a rarity for him — before he extended the fourth with a single to right. In his third at-bat, Ruiz walked against reliever Brad Boxberger in the seventh before César Hernández struck out swinging to strand the bases loaded. Ruiz, a switch-hitter, later added a single off lefty Hoby Milner in the ninth. He reached three times after doing so in all five of his plate appearances against the Miami Marlins on Wednesday. Lane Thomas (solo homer and single), Dee Strange-Gordon (two singles) and Nelson Cruz (single and catcher’s interference) reached twice.

What is the next step of Ehire Adrianza’s rehab? After recently playing seven innings in a simulated game, Adrianza soon could begin a rehab assignment with one of Washington’s affiliates. The 32-year-old utility man has been sidelined with a left quadriceps injury since late April. When the Nationals signed him for one year and $1.5 million this offseason, they hoped for a solid backup at second, shortstop, third and left field. Adrianza’s return probably will lead to Dee Strange-Gordon being designated for assignment. It also could mean fewer reps for Maikel Franco, who has started at third in every one of Washington’s games.

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